Satipaṭṭhāna and Anattā

POSTCARD#457: Bangkok: [Editor’s note: this excerpt is from ‘The Thousand-Petaled Lotus’, last paragraph, page 109 in the print copy: “… when petal number one thousand opens up, so beautiful and unworldly, then you see the famed jewel in the heart of the lotus. Do you know what that jewel is? – a diamond? a ruby? No it’s emptiness. You see the priceless gem of emptiness in the very heart of the body-mind and this is not what you would ever have expected. That’s how you know it is not just another petal. Emptiness is something of a completely different nature to every other petal, to every other thing. Nothing! To reach this far usually requires superpower mindfulness sustained on its focus for a very long time.

The Purpose of Satipaṭṭhāna

So what is the purpose of satipaṭṭhāna? The purpose is to see anattā, that there is no self, no me, nor anything that belongs to a self. As it says in the texts, “Such mindfulness is established enough to discern that there are just the body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind” and that these are not me, not mine, nor a self (this is how I (the author) translate a phrase in the suttas).

When you keep in mind that the purpose of satipaṭṭhāna is to uncover the delusion of me, mine, or a self, to see anattā or the “emptiness in the heart of the lotus,” then the way of practice becomes clear. In particular you can appreciate why the Buddha taught just four focuses for mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, and mind objects. He taught these four because these are the major areas where life assumes a “me” or a “mine.”

So the satipaṭṭhāna practice sustains superpower mindfulness on each of the four objects in order to unravel the illusion of a self. You have been deluded for too long, identifying with the physical body, regarding your feelings as yours (and therefor subject to your control), assuming the mind (the process of knowing) to be your self and attaching to the objects of mind as matters of concern to you.

Summary of the Preliminaries

1. vineyya loke abhijjhā domanassam – first abandon the five hindrances through the practice of jhāna.

2. satimā – be possessed of superpower mindfulness resulting from jhāna.

3. atāpi – diligently sustain that superpower mindfulness on the focus.

4. sampajāno – keep in mind the purpose of satipaṭṭhāna on each of the four focuses in turn.

Body Contemplation

In the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas there are fourteen areas for focusing mindfulness involving the body. They are grouped as follows: (1) breath, (2) bodily posture, (3) bodily activity, (4) composition of the body, (5) the body seen as four elements, and (6) the nine corpse contemplations. Here, I will discuss briefly all but the fifth.


In Indian philosophy, the breath (prāṇa in Sanskrit) is sometimes considered to be the vital essence of a human being. Indeed, the Pāli word for “animal” is the same as the word for “breath,” pāṇa. Similarly, the English word animal is derived from the Latin animalis, meaning “having breath.” Certainly, in ancient times the breath was considered to be such an important part of life that it was thought to be almost identical to a self or soul.

By focusing superpower mindfulness on the breath, it is possible to experience the breath as an empty process, completely subject to conditioning, with no being in here doing the breathing. Moreover, in deep jhāna, we can experience the breath disappearing altogether (in the fourth jhāna) with no danger to life.

During my teacher Ajahn Chah’s long sickness, he would often stop breathing. On one such occasion the new nurse on duty became alarmed. He knew that Ajahn Chah must die one day, but he didn’t want it to happen on his shift! The attendant monks on duty that night reassured him that Ajahn Chah had done the same many times before and that it was just a sign of deep meditation. The nurse was still worried and so took blood samples every few minutes during the hours without breathing to ensure that the blood was still well oxygenated. After all, as long as there is enough oxygen available in the blood there will be no harm to the body. The nurse discovered that even though Ajahn Chah was not breathing for a long time, the oxygen level in the blood remained constant. In jhāna, the metabolism is so slowed down that you are using almost zero energy. You don’t need to breathe.

Why is it that ordinary people gasp when they are excited, or struggle for breath just before they die? Perhaps their attachment to their breath is deeper than they realized. Remember, satipaṭṭhāna uncovers attachments that are completely unexpected. When you experience the cessation of breath, then it is obvious that it is not yours at all. From that insight, attachment to breath unravels.

Bodily Postures and Bodily Activities

There are two ways to understand something: by contemplating what it is made of and by contemplating what it does. Here we are analyzing this body by contemplating what it does. It is an illusion to think that I am walking, standing, lying down, sitting, stretching my arm, and so on. The truth is that there is a body doing this, not an I.

Many high achievers in sports, the arts, or even meditation, describe a state of selflessness called entering the “zone.” When a famous classical Indian dancer I knew was asked how she could perform to such a high standard, she replied that she practices and practices, but when the performance begins, she deliberately forgets everything she has been taught. She “gets herself out of the way” and allows the dance to take over. This is a classic description of entering the zone. When the athlete is in the zone, she can move effortlessly, gracefully, and faultlessly. When the meditator is in the zone, he can watch samādhi deepen beautifully, seamlessly, and wordlessly. You clearly experience all this as mere process, with no being driving the process. It is anattā, no-self.

You observe bodily postures and activities with superpower mindfulness and quickly enter a zone where all bodily postures and activities are seen to be mere cause-driven processes, not self-driven ones. You become less of a control freak concerning this body. You detach and live at ease.

Some teachers mistakenly think that mindfulness must always be focused on activities in the present moment. In fact the Pāli word for mindfulness, sati, also means remembering. Superpower mindfulness can focus on an object many moments old, bore into it without the object fading, and uncover its truth.

For example, in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta one is asked to practice mindfulness focused on sleeping. Even arahants are not aware when they’re asleep, so what does this mean? Some translators have attempted to solve this question by changing the meaning of the exercise to mindfulness on falling asleep. However, the Pāli word used in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta means “in sleep,” and there is a different phrase for falling asleep, niddaṃ okkamati. The practice of mindfulness focused on sleeping means one uses a previous experience of having been asleep as the focus of superpower mindfulness in the present. It is mindfulness that takes an old experience as its object. This may seem pedantic to you now, but it becomes crucially important, as you will see, when I explain the focus of mindfulness on the citta (mind consciousness).

Continued next week 11th Feb 2022 with Composition of the Body

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